How Obama Can Fix The Other Disaster in Bush’s Legacy: The War on Workers

Art Levine

At year's end, President Bush and his spinmeisters, including the First Lady, defended his legacy from Iraq to Katrina. But scholars and progressives were united in their view that President Bush is one of of the worst Presidents in history. Yet even as pundits have justly focused on the cataclysmic trifecta of Iraq, Katrina and the $7 trillion economic meltdown, there was another calamity that combined free-market zealotry, incompetence and indifference to public health and safety: the Bush Administration's War on Workers. In its own six-part review of the "good news/bad news" year in labor, the AFL-CIO Now blog labeled Bush's government "the most anti-worker administration in U.S. history." On virtually every front, the Labor Department that was supposed to protect workers' lives and paychecks did practically nothing to stop 6,000 workers from being killed on the job each year and prevent an estimated $19 billion from being stolen through corporate wage theft of overtime and minimum wage payments. As David Madland and Karla Walter of the Center for American Progress Action Fund pointed out recently: Negligent firms often ignore these [workplace ] rules, and Bush’s Department of Labor has shirked its role as top labor cop. Irresponsible employers know that they will be rarely penalized for workplace abuses, and when they are, penalties will likely be so low they will not hurt the firm’s bottom line. In recent years, wage theft investigators assessed fines on only 6 percent of known lawbreakers. Moreover, in 2006 the average workplace safety penalty for serious violations that “pose a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm” was only $881… The risk of employer abuse is especially high for workers in traditionally low-wage and potentially dangerous industries. According to recent reports, at least 50 percent of garment, nursing home, and poultry employers are in violation of the basic minimum wage and overtime protections… And it’s not only workers who get cheated. Employers who play by the rules and treat their workers with respect can’t compete with irresponsible firms who cut corners with employee safety and wages. On top of robbing workers of their pay, these rogue firms (including Wal-Mart, which just settled 63 wage theft cases) also steal from taxpayers, too. Madland and Walter note in their new report on immediate actions the Obama administration can take to protect workers, Enforcing Change: "Taxpayers are cheated out of $2.7 billion to $4.3 billion each year in Social Security, unemployment, and income taxes from just one type of workplace fraud that misclassifies employees as independent contractors." While labor's top legislative priority is the long-overdue Employee Free Choice Act to give workers a level playing field to organize, there are several key steps Obama's new Secretary of Labor, Rep. Hilda Solis, can take right away to boost enforcement of current laws at a broken Labor Department and such slothful agencies as OSHA. How bad was OSHA under Bush? The Washington Post reported last week a nearly 90 percent drop-off in major oversight actions because "political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure." In fact, as the Post reported, OSHA's recent chief was a deregulation advocate who literally fell asleep on the job (at least "Brownie" at FEMA stayed awake long enough to primp himself for interviews): In 2006, [John] Henshaw was replaced by Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a South Carolina lawyer and former Bush fundraiser who spent years defending companies cited by OSHA for safety and health violations. Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator. His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake… It won't be easy fixing a Bush-led bureaucracy that couldn't care less if workers lived or died (or even get paid). But Madland and Walker outline five critical steps to toughen enforcement and accountability: · Opportunity 1: Use penalties to create a culture of accountability. · Opportunity 2: Increase enforcement staff and use partnerships to assist underfunded enforcement divisions. · Opportunity 3: Target high-violation sectors with strategic initiatives. · Opportunity 4: Use thorough record keeping to drive enforcement priorities, enhance public accountability, and improve performance evaluation. · Opportunity 5: Strengthen immigrant protections to improve job quality for all workers. But Bush's outgoing labor secretary never heard such calls for change, but still insists, like her President's latest PR campaign on behalf of his "legacy," that everything worked out just fine. She recently told the Los Angeles Times: She said that much of the criticism of her stewardship misses the big picture. "Our workers today [are] safer and healthier than they were eight years ago. The facts speak for themselves," she said in a recent interview… Many labor advocates say the results could be even better if the agency had taken a tougher approach toward employers. They also accuse Chao of using the agency's regulatory power to hamstring organized labor with new financial reporting requirements that unions call onerous. (To read more about union harassment by paperwork, click here.) Indeed, as the useful blog, Shameonelaine.org, run by American Rights at Work, points out: "Under Elaine’s questionable 'leadership,' the Department of Labor has turned into an agency that screws America's workers and enables corporate giveaways." So Hilda Solis truly has her work cut out for her. As the New York Times' editorial page observed: The first and biggest test of Mr. Obama’s commitment to labor, and to Ms. Solis, will be his decision on whether or not to push the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009. Corporate America is determined to derail the bill, which would make it easier than it has been for workers to form unions by requiring that employers recognize a union if a majority of employees at a workplace sign cards indicating they wish to organize…The measure is vital legislation and should not be postponed… To enforce labor standards, the Labor Department will need more staff and more money, both of which have been cut deeply by President Bush. Only the president can give the new labor secretary the clout she will need to do well at a job that has been done so badly for so long, at such great cost to the quality of Americans’ lives. Now it's up to Obama to help undo the damage eight years of George Bush did to American workers.

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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